I am sitting in the Boston Logan airport. My flight takes off for Orlando in about an hour and a half. I just spent the past 24 hours at a conference on free speech and expression. It is a typical business trip for me. I am at the airport bar, enjoying a pint and some food, answering emails, and generally minding my own business. The bar is packed, most are. There is one open seat next to me. In a few minutes a woman sits next to me. She is young, thin, has a quiet voice. I really do not take much time to look at her. Most of the time us travelers are really not super into close interactions although the size of the airport dictates that. She squeezes in beside me. She is looking at her phone, we are all looking at our phones. There is nothing unusual about these interactions.
The woman asks the bar tender if there is a place where she can plug her phone in. There isn’t. This, also is not unusual. So I reach into my bag. I often have extra chargers for my travels so I grab one and ask if she would like to charge up. She does. She thanks me, offers to buy me a beer, I refuse and tell her that “recharging your phone should be free.” She thanks me. This entire exchange happens we little eye contact because most of these bar interactions are done by only looking at the silhouette of the person next to you on the side of their face.
Again, none of this is unusual. Been through this a million times – Denver, Phoenix, Indianapolis, you name it. I have been in the bars for years stalling for time until the next flight. Here is where things happen.
I am still minding my own business. Just tapping away at my email and then another woman approaches the woman next to me. She asks if it is okay if she hugs her, tells her it is going to be okay, that her own sister has been there. The woman is sobbing. You can hear the unrestrained sniffles and the two are embracing so close to me I feel like I am part of the hug. The woman walks away. And the woman next to me orders; a gin and tonic and a fish sandwich. She orders a double gin and tonic. She sits quietly, eats, drinks, texts people. Same as me.
After a moment she is done eating, its time to leave. She gathers her things and asks the bartender, “can I pay please?” She places her visa card on the bar. The bartender tells her that her money is no good here. The woman replies, “why are you doing this?” The bartender replies, “because.” I am a bit confused. but right then I look over at her and get a good look. She is bald. She is undergoing chemo treatments in Boston and flies back and forth from Maine to Boston to get care. She looks both sad and resolved at the same time. I had not noticed before because I was just trying to respect the space at the bar.
The woman begins to tear up, and she whispers to herself, “I wish she would just let me pay, I can pay, why won’t they let me pay.” My guess, this happens all too often to her. She leaves a $20 in an act of defiance. She wants to pay, she wants the normalcy of paying her own way. This was really a moment of deep reflection for me. My guess is so many of the folks we see as fragile and who are suffering from illnesses crave something that we all take for granted, a chance to feel normal. From the hug to not being allowed to pay these acts feel kind but they seemed to hurt this woman. The acts (specifically the not being allowed to pay) take away the dignity of normal. She is already aware others know because of her hair being gone. I think we can serve folks better by being kind without doing things just to make us feel better. Not sure where I am going with this other than perhaps we have an obligation to not make assumptions as to the needs of others based on how we feel about them. Because many times these acts of kindness are really to make ourselves feel better about ourselves. And that is not the point. So the next time you see a person who is clearly wanting the normalcy of paying, let them pay. You might be doing more for that person by treating them like everyone else than you do trying to do what you think is the nice thing. Odd I know.
So here is how the interaction ended. She pushed back from the bar. She handed me my charger back. And said, “thank you.” I said to her, “have a safe flight.” and she walked away. And now I feel as if I am forever changed.